North Bay rapper LaRussell grew up listening to stories from his grandfather about the Black Panthers. On “Fuck 12 Freestyle”—his contemporary spin on the N.W.A. classic—featuring Oakland’s Guapdad 4000—the beat abruptly cuts out and archival audio from a Panthers rally fades in, collapsing the distance between past and present.
LaRussell’s new track raises the curtain on what many in the local scene see as a new golden age of Bay Area hip-hop. It’s also one of the more overtly political songs on Tales of the Town, a compilation to be released next Friday of local hitmakers trading verses about Oakland’s living legacy of revolutionary art.
Created by community organizers and educators Abbas Muntaqim and Delency Parham, Tales of the Town started as a podcast called “Hella Black” about Oakland’s vivid Black history. Now, it’s a multimedia project with a short film in the works and full-length book out next month.
Drawing on oral histories from Black elders, scholarly research and pop culture, the project focuses on how Oakland became a rich enclave for Black art and political resistance. It reflects the lived experiences and lineages of Muntaqim and Parham, whose families arrived in the East Bay during the Great Migration, and years later, joined the Black Panther Party in West Oakland.
As Parham explains, the Tales of the Town podcast attempts to draw a historical through line to help listeners understand the era they’re living through. “This history has led to our current conditions,” he said.
The first episode takes listeners back 100 years to the Great Migration, when nearly 6 million newly free Black Southerners began arriving in Oakland and Northern cities like Chicago, in search of “the warmth of other suns,” as author Isabel Wilkerson described it. Oakland was a popular destination simply because it was the Western terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad, rolling into Oakland’s Long Wharf for the first time in November of 1869.
Muntaqim’s interest in this history stemmed from hearing his elders’ recollections of making the journey themselves. “My great auntie talked about fleeing the Jim Crow South because of white supremacist terrorism through the KKK and other groups,” he said.
As he learned, systemic and individual racism followed Black families to Oakland. On the podcast, the co-hosts discuss the reactionary violence to Oakland’s first generation of Black residents—how the Oakland Police Department recruited KKK members from the South to join the force. They follow this thread to a turning point in Black revolutionary history, when Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in West Oakland on this very week in 1966.
LaRussell is one of many artists on the album who invoke the Black Panthers in their lyrics and samples. And while the new release spotlights contemporary talent, featuring East Bay rappers like G-Eazy and P-Lo, the larger project zooms out on the historical breadth of Black music in Oakland. San Francisco’s Fillmore District often gets credited as the “Harlem of the West,” but West Oakland’s Seventh Street—where the BART line runs today—earned the same nickname in the 1940s as a vibrant corridor of jazz, funk and blues clubs.
Financed in part by a Prohibition bootlegger and successful gambler Charles “Raincoat” Jones, the Seventh Street entertainment district attracted big names like Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday between the 1940s and the ’60s. Al Green made his first West Coast performance at Esther’s Orbit Room.
As Muntaqim and Parham relay on the podcast, Oakland’s “Harlem of the West” was gradually razed in the 1960s as part of urban renewal programs that displaced Black residents and made room for a postal distribution center, and eventually, the BART line. Now out of sight and largely out of mind, Muntaqim lamented that the neighborhood’s musical history has faded from memory, partly because there’s little public commemoration on Seventh Street.
“The city of Oakland hasn’t taken the time to really document and celebrate that history,” he said. Today, only a small walk of fame and the old marquee from Esther’s Orbit Room, the last of the “Harlem of the West” jazz and blues clubs to close, remains at street level.
Muntaqim said he hopes that by sharing sounds and stories from Oakland, the podcast will help keep the collective memory alive. “I think one of the beauties of the album is this concept of Bay Area unity,” Muntaqim said. “People coming together to make political music, talking about the experiences of being Black in Oakland.”
La Russell told The Standard he’s proud to be part of a local hip-hop scene that’s having a moment. “The Bay is on fire right now,” he said. “The scene has become a lot more unified.”
The co-hosts also aim to show how national movements like Black Lives Matter find their roots in Oakland. “Things that are happening in Oakland are in many ways a window onto your own backyard,” Muntaqim explained. “From gentrification, to police violence, to environmental racism and to schools being shut down, these things are pretty much happening in every single Black community across the country.” A few songs from the album, including “All Black Power” and “Black Jacobins” reference the 2009 killing of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by a BART police officer in 2009.
The proceeds of the record will help fund the People’s Programs, Muntaqim and Parham’s community organization, which carries on the legacy of the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for School Children Program, along with a free clinic, bail support for Black protesters and other social aid programs.
Just as there’s still a need for these forms of community support decades later, LaRussell said he believes the vision behind Tales of the Town is at once timeless and timely. “These issues have always been important,” he said. “It’s always important to keep a light on dark areas otherwise you allow them to cultivate and grow.”
“There’s so much negativity going on,” Muntaqim added. “I think this project, in many ways, is a combination of positive energy for positive change in our community.”
‘Tales of the Town’
Sarah Holtz can be reached at [email protected]